How to Travel in Countries with Different Alphabets

A colleague once told me that I could not, would not, should not travel in China without being part of a guided tour group. I wasn’t sure if this was correct or not, but he had been there, after all, so I was inclined to semi-believe him.

Well, I am happy to say that I laugh in the face of this advice now, as I have travelled in many countries where I cannot read the “A, B, C”, let alone speak.

Hong Kong streetThis blog is not about travelling anywhere abroad– eg France. That is relatively easy as many people speak English, we did French at school (whether we paid attention in class or not – ahem!) and French comes from the same Latin words as many other languages, eg Italian and Spanish, and so you can sometimes guess what they mean – eg. “Ordem e Progresso” on the Brazilian Flag. I can take a reasonable guess that this means Order and Progress.

I am talking about countries with different alphabets. It’s harder to guess what this means:  酒店每个人都 . All my tiny little brain can decipher is little pictures, which probably indicates that I need to see a psychiatrist. (And it means “Hello Everyone!”, according to the online translator I used!)

So how do you travel in these countries? And is it possible without being part of a guided tour party?

Japanese people onlyRule One: Learn the basics

I always learn about 5 key words: Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Sorry, Hello, Goodbye. Write them down on a napkin until you remember them!

Even though this is just scratching the surface of the language, I do find that this helps. These words crop up every 5 minutes, and it’s so much nicer if you bump into someone in the street to be able to say “Sorry!”. Or “No thank you!” to people selling stuff.

I have also been to countries unprepared and I felt extremely isolated to be completely mute and unable to say a single word, like there is a barrier between me and the country. I have always immediately grabbed my phrasebook and got revising!

Rule Two: Do your research

If you already know what number bus it is to get from A to B, you won’t have to spend hours trying to explain the same to locals through the art of mime etc. Being well prepared helps your travel go smoothly, and also makes you less likely to be scammed!

Rule Three: Buy a Phrasebook / Point-book

Very useful particularly in case of emergency, to be able to say obscure words to a medic / car mechanic / hotel man. With my 5 words, I have no hope of learning “we need a doctor” etc. I would recommend having some kind of phrasebook, or even a point-book (full of pictures, so you can point to what you want in the manner of an infant.).

Rule Four: Mime

If all else fails, Mime is the “go to”. The international system of communication, as used by Bridget Jones when explaining that she was “mit bebe”. Also used by my BF when he mimed sumo in Japan.

Rule Five : Be prepared look silly

Any of the above – ridiculous mimes, laughable attempts at languages – can make you look silly. In some cultures they will let you know that you look silly. Be prepared to be laughed at, pointed at, and whispered about. It probably helps knowing that going in to the experience. It’s not just you! Read about our experiences here and here.

Rule Six: Speak Slowly

If, like me, you’re not the best Mime artist, and your application to drama school is never going to be accepted, then there is sometimes the option of speaking English – although this should not be relied upon. Depending on where you are, there might be the odd person who speaks a bit of English.

In this case, although it sounds obvious, speak slowly and clearly, and use simple words. Like say “Hello! Can we rent a car?” instead of “Terribly sorry to bother you old chap. Do you think it might be possible to rent a car around here?”. Although this sounds blindingly obvious, it never ceases to amaze me how many people speak fast and use complicated words when speaking to people with limited English. The same goes for using proper English words instead of abbreviations / slang, eg. “going to” instead of “gonna”.

Rule Seven: Be aware of false positives

We have sometimes come across people who seem to have perfect English, and are very able to eloquently greet you and present their dinner menu. However if you try to talk about anything else, you realise that their English is surface-level only. I can’t fault them (particularly not with my 5 words! 😉 ) but just be aware that not everyone who appears to be fluent at English, is fluent at English. Sometimes they might be smiling and saying “yes” because they want to be helpful. If you suspect they don’t understand, ask the question again in a different way and see if you get an answer which makes sense when compared with the first answer.

Kyoto, JapanSo can you travel without a tour guide?

Absolutely. It will take some adventure and you will need to be prepared to take a little more time finding your feet, maybe having some weird encounters. But it’s definitely possible.

If you’re nervous about it, feel outside your comfort zone, or simply want a relaxing holiday rather than an adventure, then it is certainly peace of mind to have a tour guide. So a lot depends on your travel style and what type of experience you want to have.

But for me, there’s nothing like doing it yourself – ordering duck and thinking “I swear that’s beef?!”, not being sure about which bus it is or when it goes and comes back. That’s part of the fun for me! (Just don’t tell me that when I’m fighting my way onto a bus at the Great Wall!!)

Next blog: Hong Kong

Previous blog: Food in Vietnam


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